Author and journalist Neal Thompson discusses his various publications, including Driving With the Devil: Southern Moonshine, Detroit Wheels, and the Birth of NASCAR, which was featured in the April Box from Carolina Monthly.
Let’s start at the beginning. Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into writing?
I’m one of those guys lucky enough to know that I wanted to be a writer. It wasn’t until college that I realized that I needed to find a way to make a living as a writer and the best way to do that was to write for newspapers. I studied journalism in college and I did some internships writing for newspapers. My first job was also at a newspaper after college. I did that for about 12 or 13 years and I loved it. I lived in different cities up and down the east coast. My first job was in Roanoke, Virginia. Over time, I decided I wanted to tell longer stories where I could dig deeper and do more research. That led me into magazine stories and eventually, I decided I wanted to work on a book.
Were you a columnist or what type of journalism were you involved in at the beginning?
It was kind of all over the map. I’ve had pretty much every type of newspaper beat you could have, [such as] cops, courts, education, lifestyle and I even covered the US Naval Academy for a while and some other military [work]. I was always a news reporter with different beats like investigative reporting and feature writing.
You’ve had four books published so far. How do you go about picking your topics?
I’m looking for a few things with each book. I’m trying to find a story that hasn’t really been told yet, or at least, not in the way that I set out to do it. Most of my stories end up having a little history, or Americana to them. They also end up being guy stories—men who want to live big lives.
The first book [Light This Candle: The Life and Times of Alan Shepard] was a biography about Alan Shepard, who was the first American in space. He was an example of someone that hadn’t really been written about before. He was part of the Mercury 7 program, which consisted of seven astronauts. Each of the others had already had their own book or been written about before, except for Alan Shepard. I thought that there had to be a great story there so I got lost in the research. All of my books are heavily research-based. I really enjoy that part of the process—digging through information and really immersing myself in the material.
The second book was a deep exploration into the roots of NASCAR. I wanted to know where it all began. I ended up focusing on these Georgia moonshiners who are credited as being some of the first racers; the first mechanics; the first sponsors. All of these things that we know about NASCAR today, started with this core group in Atlanta in the 1930s and 1940s.
[These men] are considered the grandfathers and first teams of the sport. That was just really fun. I wanted to explore the connections between moonshine running and stock-car racing. It’s something I had always heard about with NASCAR, but I never really knew what that meant and how they were truly connected to each other. There have been a lot of stories and even some books written about a racecar driver named Junior Johnson from North Carolina. He’s always the example of someone who went from a moonshine runner to NASCAR racer, but he really didn’t come along until the 1950s and raced on into the 1960s. He was a phenomenal racer with a great story, but I couldn’t help but wonder who were the originals bootleggers. That’s how I ended up finding Raymond Parks, Red Byron, Lloyd Seay, Roy Hal,l and some other guys I mentioned in the book.
Two of our founders actually worked for a company called Piedmont Distillers, bottling moonshine legally in Madison, North Carolina. Junior Johnson is still somewhat involved as the company bottles Junior Johnson’s Midnight Moon.
We were very interested in the story and the history and your book seems to be the go-to source for this type of information. It’s all still so secretive. How did you go about gathering this information?
That’s a good question. It’s a piece of the backstory that I’m proud of, but that was also fun. Early in the research, I kept running into the same problems. It’s not like writing about an astronaut where you’ve got NASA archives to dig into. There aren’t early NASCAR archives or even paperwork saved. There was one breakthrough and it really made the book and that’s Raymond Parks.
Early on in the process, people kept telling me that if I get Raymond to talk, I would get a good story. He was getting older about the time I got started, around 2002. I’m not sure exactly how old he was, but definitely into his 80s. I lived in Asheville and I would drive over to Atlanta. Raymond still went to work pretty much every day, at one of the liquor stores that he owned. He would put on his suit and tie and go to work. He wasn’t overly involved, but he liked to show up and put in his time—a true Southern gentleman. I would show up and try to talk to him and whenever I would dig deeper to talk about the moonshine running; he would back off and say, “No, I’m not going to talk about that.”
I would say, “Thank you, maybe next time we can talk about it.” I just kept showing up and little by little, he started to open up to me and once he opened up, all of these other doors opened. Then I could tell the other old-timers and NASCAR folks that Raymond had told me this and I would like to get your version of the story. That made a huge difference. His cooperation and information led me to other sources, such as court records based on the incidents. In the book, I describe in detail, information on one of his racers, Lloyd Seay, getting shot and killed by his own cousin. I found the court documents that described the event; that court case with police testimony and court information in Dawson, Georgia. It was amazing to find this document I had spent so much time looking for. I got to know more about Lloyd Seay, both his background and racing life.
What are some of your favorite parts of the book and what can you tell us about the cover?
It was fun to recreate some of the race scenes. There aren’t too many because there is only so much you can write about unless something happens. But one of the ones I thought was pretty intense was this race where Red Byron was winning, and I described how he had been wounded in WWII so he had to wear this leg brace and there was this device so he could operate the clutch. It was tricky for him to drive and change gears. He had figured it out and he was very good at it, but one race, he had this blowout where his car veered off the track and in some of the old photos, you can tell there isn’t much protection between the cars and the fans. Red Byron plowed into the spectators and ended up killing a five-year-old boy. It devastated him. He was a wreck after that for a long period of time. Then, the final race of the following season was on that same track and this time, he wins the race and became NASCAR’s champion that year.
So there are truly amazing stories to revisit and I think because Red Byron was the champ the first two years and then somewhat overlooked afterwards, I chose to use that photo of him for the cover. I love that shot because it shows him smoking a cigarette, leaning against the car, and the car has the builder Red Vogt’s name on it, and it really just represents how things looked back then and who these guys were. They weren’t celebrities. They weren’t entertainers like some NASCAR racers now. They were just guys who put on their overalls and got behind the wheel.
What can you tell us about your third and fourth books?
The third one was slightly different than the others. It was more contemporary than historical. It’s a story about a high school football team outside of New Orleans, after Hurricane Katrina. It’s the story about that school coming back together after the hurricane. The community really rallied around the football team. They had always been impressive, winning several championships, but the school was damaged and some of the players were dispersed, but they came together and won the state championship that year. That one was called Hurricane Season.
The next book was a biography about Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Similar to the first two books, it was an attempt to look back to find the untold story of where this idea came from. We’ve seen the museums or books, and if you’re my age, you may even remember the cartoons, but this guy had never really been written about before. It turned out to be a fascinating story about this guy who started out as a newspaper cartoonist, where he began to travel the world and draw cartoons about the weird things he saw while traveling. Those cartoons became more and more popular, and then he got into radio, film, and best-selling books until he became a very successful entertainer—somewhat of a media mogul during his day. He died relatively young, but his brand lives on. That one was called A Curious Man.
Is there anything you’re working on now?
I’m trying to write a book about my kids and their obsession with skateboarding.
What books influence you or what books do you gift most often?
For gifting, it changes over time. There’s a wonderful book that I’ve given to people over the years called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Years ago, I used to give people Kurt Vonnegut or Haruki Murakami.
What are some of your writing rituals?
When I’m in a routine, I definitely try to write everyday. It’s important to keep pushing the idea forward, even if it’s just getting a couple of lines down. At least that way, I feel like I’ve accomplished something. It’s certainly not a new idea, but it’s important to just get your butt in the chair for as long as you can.
Sometimes I’ll have a great day and something will come out—maybe 1,000 words—while other days, I may just be shuffling sentences around, and I’ll only get to 100 words. It’s getting harder and harder to avoid the distractions of email, the Internet, and everything else, so doing what I can to avoid distractions is now part of my routine. Find a quiet place or wear headphones if I’m working in a coffee shop and just focus on the work.
I also listen to music. Sometimes some loud music can snap me out of it. Or, sometimes, a little bourbon in the afternoon if I’m feeling really stuck and just need to relax or clear my head to get a few more words down or muscle through a tricky section. I’m a big fan of two fingers of Bulleit or Woodford Reserve.
Is there anything you wish you would have known about writing before you began your first book? Or, any advice you’d like to pass along to upcoming writers?
There are a few things I’ve learned, either from my own work or from other writers. One thing I’ve thought of recently would be to not be afraid of getting the words down. Don’t be afraid of failing. Don’t think you’re not worthy of it. Sometimes you just need to tell your story. Get it down on paper. Take it from there. You can always rewrite it later. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Just get your story down in its imperfect form. Later, you can figure out how to move things around. Cut or edit. Getting the words down is the most important thing. Get out of your way.
You mentioned being drawn to these stories because they haven’t really been told before. In your opinion, what makes a good story?
To me, it’s a character or set of characters that you care about. You have to really want to know what’s going to happen next and you have to care for them. They don’t have to be perfect human beings—in fact, it’s more interesting if they’re not—where they have to overcome something despite their flaws. The people that I’ve been interested in writing about were all flawed, sometimes deeply. Alan Shepard was incredibly cocky and competitive. He wasn’t the most faithful husband. He was a rule breaker and a little of a renegade, but those things make him feel human. Hopefully, throughout the story, you end up rooting for him.
If it’s a well-drawn character, fiction or non-fiction, people see themselves. You want to be able to relate to them. There needs to be something at stake. Somebody needs to win or lose and that’s what keeps the stakes going. You want to find out what happens. That’s what keeps you turning the pages—that narrative tension. You want to see yourself. If they can succeed, you can succeed. Beautiful writing, in and of itself, isn’t enough for me.
Special Thanks to author Neal Thompson for this interview. If you would like to find out more information about the author, please visit his website, www.nealthompson.com
Photo credit, Silodrome